The romance genre is the leading genre of books by women, about women, and for women.
What is even more amazing is the fact that this is celebrated. There is a massive audience out there that buys into this genre for pushing the envelope and creating a comfortable space for women, even if it means defying a cultural and media landscape that would rather stick with the patriarchy.
One would think a genre that has been well rewarded for celebrating one under-privileged and represented group would be willing to keep up the good work and lift another group. Yet, that has not been the case. When it comes to publishing stories that feature protagonists who are of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, disabled, or plus-sized, the genre is failing just as much as the rest of mainstream media. While I could go on and on about all of the above, today I am going to focus on the lack of representation for different body times. To the rest, I’ll be with you soon enough.
According to the article, “The Average Size of the American Woman is No Longer 14” by Mary Nunes, the average American woman is between sizes 16 and 18. While the average American woman has increased in size, representation for plus-size women in mainstream culture has remained the same: plus-size characters are typically “othered” or depicted as only having worth after they’ve lost the weight, i.e. Netflix’s Insatiable. However, the lack of representation for body diversity in characters is not just apparent in television and film, but also in literature.
Romance, like most genre fiction, is a form of escapism and the happily ever after (or HEA) is typically attained by page 300. However, unlike fiction, real life is never so easily resolved. Romance writers rely heavily on well-honed tropes and archetypes that are constantly cycled and re-worked to reach that necessary HEA. And although tropes are not necessarily bad, they can grow a bit stale, especially when authors also get caught up in ideals: i.e. the tall, handsome lord and the beautiful, yet overlooked, wallflower.
While writing idealistic characters isn’t completely problematic on an individual basis, it becomes more problematic as you consider the number of books in a given year that feature the same basic premise: two attractive people meet and ultimately fall in love. Books that follow the aforementioned formula not only lack representation for body diversity, but they reinforce the idea that only attractive people are worthy of love. I would argue this is not the intention of most authors, yet regardless of intent, there is still an apparent lack of body diversity in romance.
In Worth the Weight by Mara Jacobs, the protagonist Lizzie comes home after eighteen years away. Her character has lost a lot of weight since high school and her identity is rooted in the fact that she’s a former fat girl. Lizzie made a positive, healthy change in her life. However, rather than move forward, she decides to take revenge on her high school crush, Finn Robbins, to “find, fuck, and forget” him.
My quibble with the plot is not that Lizzie lost weight or that she falls in love with a man who once-upon-a-time rejected her. No, my issue stems from the fact that Lizzie’s entire identity and self-worth is defined by the fact that she used to be fat and now she’s not.
It is detrimental to have the lead character in a romance behave as Lizzie does throughout the book. Seeking revenge for being rejected now that she’s “finally attractive” and measuring her self-worth by the size of her waistline is toxic. It is not unrealistic to portray a woman struggling with self-confidence and self-love. But failing to give Lizzie growth and self-actualization outside of her relationship with Finn is not the type of feminist, body-empowering romance we need.
Another thing we don’t need in romance is body shaming or men telling women what to do with their bodies. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James is a prime example of body shaming. In the first installment of the Fifty Shades trilogy, the “hero” Christian Grey presents the heroine Anastasia Steele with a contract. In the contract he stipulates what she can and can’t eat and that she must exercise four days a week. When Ana protests, Christian refuses to negotiate with her in any meaningful way. He uses food and exercise as another way to exert his control over her and also to ensure she maintains his desired body-type. Not only is this a gross depiction of emotional abuse, but implies that a woman isn’t desirable if she doesn’t keep her body up to a particular male standard.
It is not acceptable for a man to ever tell a woman that her worth or desirability directly correlates to her weight. And it’s certainly not cute to have that in our romance. Being healthy and taking care of our bodies is important. However, being “fat” does not automatically mean a person is unhealthy or should be seen as less than.
There are many examples of body shaming throughout romance. However, there have been recent strides in depicting plus-size heroines. Author Sarah MacLean is an outspoken advocate and has featured plus-size heroines in several of her novels, including her most recent, Brazen and the Beast. MacLean writes historical romance with a strong focus on empowering her female characters to think beyond the strictures of their society.
In Brazen, the heroine, Hattie, is a fiercely independent woman that flaunts convention and is unapologetically herself, which is something that plus-size characters are rarely given the chance to be. In an interview with Angel Cruz from bookriot.com, MacLean said, “I want to see fat women living out loud on the page. I want to see us represented in pleasure and in love and in triumphant happily ever after. And I want to see us represented in every possible way, because we don’t have a singular story.”
MacLean isn’t the only advocate for body positivity in books. Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy is a YA novel about a plus-size girl who decides to compete in a Texas beauty pageant. In an interview with Rachel Mosley of ff2media.com Murphy said, “I knew that I wanted to write a fat book. Because growing up, every fat representation I saw in media, the fat person was the butt of the joke. They had to be the funny fat best friend and serve a purpose in that way..They couldn’t just exist and have a story.”
Lack of body representation in romance is not just relegated to women. Time and again the hero is a tall, fit, handsome man. While I enjoy reading about tall, handsome, and brooding Dukes, it does get a bit boring. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t encountered any single, rich, British peers running around with 6-pack abs and a GQ-worthy smolder. If you have, kindly send me his number.
All jokes aside, not every romance needs to feature an impossibly attractive man. The danger in publishing books that represent the “ideal” is not the assumption that women are unable to distinguish fiction from reality or that by reading romance they will develop unrealistic expectations about men, but rather that these works fail to show that beauty can be found in anyone.
In Tessa Dare’s The Duchess Deal, the Duke of Ashbury is left disfigured by war and spurned by his fiance. When seamstress Emma Gladstone shows up at his London home demanding payment for the wedding gown of said fiance, Ashbury proposes marriage to Emma instead. It’s a Regency twist on Beauty and the Beast that, while not entirely revolutionary, is a delightful read and emphasizes that love is not just for pretty people.
The Duchess Deal provides a hero that, due to his scars, is not classically handsome and yet he’s still tall and physically fit. The fact remains that different body types or physical attributes of both men and women in romance are not diverse. To be clear, I’m not advocating for authors to stop writing books with handsome book boyfriends or beautiful heroines. Rather, I would encourage all current and aspiring romance authors to think of ways to explore writing leading characters that are “unattractive” by society’s standards, but still attractive to their respective partners. Romance should show that love is for everyone.